Blastoff?

Space Shuttle Discovery is seen streaking into space (to the left) as a plume of smoke floats through the air after it blasted off from launch pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center on April 5, 2010, in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

There may be hope yet for a far-reaching, inspirational space program. Or at least something that takes us out of low-Earth orbit. Yesterday at the Kennedy Center, President Obama outlined a new heavy-lift rocket R&D program that would theoretically take us to Mars and beyond. Working in concert with private industry, the plan is particularly long-term (and incremental, not that that’s a bad thing): an asteroid by 2025, Mars by 2030. Highlights:

The bottom line is, nobody is more committed to manned spaceflight, to human exploration of space than I am … [But] we’ve got to do it in a smart way, and we can’t just keep on doing the same old things we’ve been doing and thinking that’s going to get us where we want to go.

[…]

Step by step, we will push the boundaries not only of where we can go but what we can do. In short, 50 years after the creation of NASA, our goal is no longer just a destination to reach. Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn, operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time.

Are we finally reaching for the stars again? Or is this a Florida-as-2012-swing-state political posture? The begrudging acceptance of keeping the Orion platform as an ISS lifeboat certainly seems a bit pandering. I guess we won’t know for a while. But I’ve still got hope…

No Final Frontiers

Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of today’s foremost science personalities, addresses the total halt of innovation on NASA’s part and what it means for the nation. He is an epic man, and delivers an equally epic response to the question of the implications that NASA’s underfunding has for the United States as a nation.

For the better part of the Cold War, NASA was an inspirational agency, “the most powerful…on the dreams of a nation.” But the wonder is gone. NASA’s focus on ‘low-earth orbit’ missions misses the point, which is to push the boundaries – and frontiers – of human knowledge, a concept lost in the age of incremental, short-term planning. Agencies like the NSF and NIH, for all the good research they do, do not arouse the same feelings of wonder and imagination that NASA adventures of old did.

Much like foreign aid, estimates of what kind of percentage of the budget NASA receives are wildly overinflated. “I ask people…they say five cents, ten cents on a dollar – it’s half a penny!” There’s no boldly going anywhere anymore, even if our initial knowledge of the greenhouse effect came from studying Venus. Even if understanding the cosmos helps us to conceptualize developments at a subatomic scale here on Earth. We’re looking down when we should be looking up.

“Nobody’s dreaming about tomorrow anymore.” All too true.

Via Motherboard.

Because It’s What Next

The Constellation Program logo

Included with the stunning just-released $3.8 trillion budget was an interesting cut. It appears alarming at first: NASA’s Constellation Program, with the goal of returning men to the moon by 2020, has been told to shut down (alas, the Post has taken down their earlier, more hilarious title: “Obama’s Proposed Budget for NASA Starts Moon War on Earth”). The winding-down itself will cost $2.5 billion, after $9 billion was put into the project.

This does seem troubling to aficionados of space travel and exploration (not to mention NASA employees and contractors), but there’s most assuredly a silver lining:

Instead of continuing to develop the Ares 1 and Orion, the administration wants to invest $6 billion over five years in a commercial space taxi to carry astronauts into low Earth orbit. The budget would also funnel billions of dollars into developing new space technologies, such as the ability to refuel spacecraft in orbit. What isn’t in the budget is a specific target for exploration.

You know what? That’s absolutely fine. If anything, a more open-ended commitment is ideal, as it allows more space for contingencies. The truth is, we don’t know what we’ll find, or discover, or invent. The same goes for other massive scientific projects like the Large Hadron Collider. Sure, there are some concrete objectives, but they’re fairly modest in scope (with the exception, perhaps, of the ‘God particle’). The fact that overall NASA funding has actually increased is very encouraging.

And to all those who decry a space program as a waste of dollars better spent here… as usual, Aaron Sorkin phrases it better than I ever can:

There are a lot of hungry people in the world, and none of them are hungry because we went to the moon. None of them are colder, and certainly none of them are dumber because we went to the moon. We have to go to Mars because it’s next. For we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill, and we saw fire. And we crossed the ocean, and we pioneered the West, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on the timeline of exploration, and this is what’s next. [YouTube]

…and we reach for the stars.